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How to stay cool on a budget
It’s pretty hot in New Mexico right now, which means most of our air conditioners are putting in overtime. My swamp cooler is running non-stop in an attempt to keep our townhouse comfortable. Unfortunately, swamp coolers can only reduce the temperature of a home by about 20°F. Meaning it’s been a toasty 85° inside many Albuquerque homes this week - if you were lucky.
Many residents in New Mexico have experienced power outages over the last week as the excessive heat overburdens the energy grid. A problem that officials had predicted last year, apparently, due to the closing of the San Juan generating station. Either way, having no swamp cooler or AC in this kind of heat can have serious impacts on your health.
As temperatures continue to rise, electrical grids will need to be upgraded and electrified in order to withstand growing AC demand. A mix of state and federal policies are already helping with that, but those policies don’t exactly help us cool down this summer, do they?
That’s why I put together this list of ideas that you can implement this week to help you stay comfortable (and alive) on a budget. Obviously a set of solar panels, batteries, and a new heat pump would get you cool as a cucumber regardless of grid reliability, but you’d be looking at over $20,000 worth of upgrades to your house (Unless you qualify for solar at no upfront cost).
Anyways, there are plenty of affordable and passive ways you can make your home cooler and more efficient. Not only is efficiency good for the planet, it’s good for our health and pocketbooks too.
Today’s post is all about how you can keep your home comfortable and efficient all year round. I’ll briefly go over seven ways you can keep cool this summer without breaking the bank.
Seven cost-effective ways to cool a house in the desert
Strategic tree placement
Planting a deciduous tree (trees that lose their leaves for the winter) in front of your window (or anywhere you can fit one) has benefits year round:
The leaves will block heat from entering your window in the summer, and allow heat into your house in the winter. It’s a natural and passive way to regulate the temperature of your home year round.
Plus, it’s cost effective and beneficial for an urban ecosystem, especially if you live in the Albuquerque area. More trees will help the city conserve energy, store carbon and water, and promote cleaner air. You can also get a rebate from the city for planting certain types of trees. I put this at the top of the list because there are so many added benefits to more trees besides cooling your house.
Urban tree canopies are great for biodiversity, water storage, air quality, and so much more.
Curtains and cellular blinds
This one seems like a no brainer, but the benefits are too big not to mention. Adding curtains and blinds to the interior of your windows can go a long way in reducing the amount of heat that enters your home and the amount of cool air exiting your home. Curtains with white-plastic backings have the potential of reducing heat gains by 33% and cellular shades, like the ones pictured above, can reduce solar heat by up to 60%. Adding both, or at least cellular shades, is a must on every eye-level window in the southwest.
The recommended pairing is light-filtering blinds with blackout curtains - that way you can reduce heat while still allowing free natural light in when you need it.
While you can certainly spend a lot of money on curtains and blinds, you don’t have to. Lowes and Amazon have affordable options and you can install them one at a time as your budget allows. And if you’re really on a tight budget, cover your windows with these $6.48 “Redi Shade” blinds.
Reflective films applied to windows
Reflective film additions are one of the cheapest options on this list and can reduce heat and UV exposure for all your windows. These are especially good for windows that you don’t want covered or can’t regularly reach without a ladder - like skylights and windows high up on a wall. For some, the only downside is aesthetic as the window will have a “mirroring” effect once the film is applied, but in this heat, I’d say it’s worth it.
In addition to keeping your house cooler, reflective windows are good for privacy and can reduce the suns damage to artwork, furniture, and you.
This addition can reduce heat gain through your windows at differing rates depending on the film, and can be installed yourself for as little as $10. Just Google “NFRC rated window film near me” and you should find what you’re looking for.
If you don’t want to leave your home to pick up reflective film, and you don’t mind tackiness, you can always use tin foil. ;)
Window overhangs, especially on south-facing windows, direct the sun’s rays lower on the window. This allows less light and heat to come through without obstructing your view of the outside. According to the DOE, “If the building element bears more than about 30 degrees off true south, the effectiveness of an overhang decreases.” Therefore, it may not be necessary to add these to all of your windows.
Amazon has many sizes and designs for as little as $28, but you can always build your own with spare materials in a pinch. For best results, try lighter colors. Which brings us to…
Paint your roof white (or your whole darn house)
Outside of being beautiful, there’s a reason Mediterranean towns like Cómpeta, Spain are painted all white - it’s a passive way to cool the entire town in a hot Spanish summer. In Cómpeta, it’s required by law to paint your buildings white, but here in Albuquerque, it’s more of a recommendation.
The color white reflects heat that would otherwise be absorbed by your house - which also means less heat absorption in the winter. Luckily, winters in the southwestern US are mild, meaning a white roof (or house) wouldn’t be a terrible idea. A light tan color may also work.
It should be noted that painting your roof is not an alternative to repairing or replacing an old, damaged, roof, and applying the paint yourself could be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. For the best results, contact a local contractor to apply your fresh white paint professionally between $1000 and $3000.
While painting your roof or house is one of the more drastic measures on this list, it’s something to keep in mind as you decide between dark and light exterior colors in the southwest.
Air seal your home
Air sealing your home can save you up to 40% on your cooling and heating bills combined and give you more control of the temperature in your house. An added benefit is less bugs and critters can enter an air sealed house. With an average cost of $1,450, air sealing your home can be a great way to keep your home cooler this summer without breaking the bank. If you can find a contractor that will finance the payments, even better.
I should also note that there may be a couple downsides to air sealing your home. For one, this trick won’t cool down homes with swamp coolers. Swamp coolers only work when there is air flow - i.e. you must keep windows cracked in rooms you want the cooler air to go.
And the biggest downside to air sealing your home according to fixr.com:
…sealing the air in a home and preventing it from escaping, you prevent harmful particles and contaminants from exiting the house as well. Unfortunately, this means that they will be trapped in the home with no way out, which can harm the indoor air quality and affect people’s health.
And last but not least,
Hydration and fans
Arguably the best way to stay cool this summer is to drink enough water and stay inside next to a fan during the hottest times of the day. Our bodies can withstand high temperatures by sweating, but it’s important to stay hydrated and have sufficient air flow to help your sweat cool you down.
Like many of the things on this list, this may sound obvious but it’s worth mentioning. As my swamp cooler works day and night to keep us cool, the inside of our home gets humid. You don’t want humid and stagnant air, so be liberal with the fans.
And there you have it. Cover your windows, plant native trees in your yard, make your house more reflective, air seal your house unless you have a swamp cooler, and drink lots of water next to a fan. Hopefully this was helpful for you.
It’s getting more expensive to cool our homes as the climate warms, but we can adapt. Our ability to adapt to climatological nuances throughout history proves that we have the ability to asses, learn from, and adapt to challenges. This isn’t the first time the climate has changed dramatically on our species, but it is the first time it’s been our fault.
Stay cool out there.